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Lexis

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Now consider the following extract:

One of the reasons we are now able to make statements about vocabulary with considerably more confidence than before is because lexicographers and other researchers are able to analyse large banks of language data stored on computers. From a corpus of millions of words (made up of novels, scientific articles, plays, newspapers, brochures, speeches, recorded conversations, etc. stored on computers) quick accurate information can be accessed about how often words are used and in what linguistic contexts. We can find out what other words are commonly used with the word we are interested in, and we can also state, with some confidence, how frequently words are used in the language. This is a huge advance on, say, the pioneering work of Michael West (see West 1953) who tried to get the same kind of information through manual sweat and toil and a card index. It was impossible for him and his researchers to achieve even a fraction of what computers can now tell us.

Users of computer corpora can get a concordance for words they are looking for. A concordance is a selection of lines from the various texts in the corpus showing the search word in use. Here for example, is a 20-line concordance for the word asleep in written English:

Twenty-line concordance for asleep from the British National Corpus (written), generated by the Compleat Lexical tutor (www.lextutor.ca)

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Рис. 4.1. Twenty-line concordance for asleep from the British National Corpus (written), generated by the Compleat Lexical tutor (www.lextutor.ca)

Twenty lines is just a small sample of the many occurrences of asleep found in the written corpus. But even with such a small sample, some things are instantly clear - partly because the computer was asked to provide the lines in alphabetical order of the words immediately to the left of asleep. Thus we can see that in writing it seems that fall asleep, half asleep and was/were asleep are very common word combinations.

The Compleat Lexical Tutor (a free concordance program) allows us to look, as well, at how asleep is used in speaking.

Twenty-line concordance for asleep from the British National Corpus (spoken), generated by the Compleat Lexical tutor (www.lextutor.ca)

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Рис. 4.2. Twenty-line concordance for asleep from the British National Corpus (spoken), generated by the Compleat Lexical tutor (www.lextutor.ca)

It becomes clear immediately that fast asleep is a more common word combination in speaking than in writing, but that the other combinations we noticed in writing also occur in speech.

Lexicographers work with considerably more complex concordance information than this, of course, but the principle is the same, and it allows them to provide dictionary entries which not only give definitions, but also list frequently occurring combinations (collocations), and say how common words are. In the dictionary entry for asleep (Figure 3) we see that it is one of the 2,000 most common words in speech, but that it falls outside the 3,000 most common words in written English (because no frequency information is given for writing [W]).

Entry for asleep from Longman Dictionary of Conteprorary English (CD-ROM version)

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Рис. 4.3. Entry for asleep from Longman Dictionary of Conteprorary English (CD-ROM version)

Word meaning

The least problematic issue of vocabulary, it would seem, is meaning. We know that table means a thing with three or four legs which we can write on and eat off and that book is a collection of words between covers. But of course the situation is more complicated than this. Both words have many different meanings, quite apart from those already mentioned. We can eat off a table, or we can table a motion at a conference. We can summarise information in a table, too. Then again, when we have read our book, we can ring up a restaurant and book a table, but if we drive too fast on the way, we might be booked for speeding. Some people have been keeping a book on whether we will keep our job because everyone knows we've been cooking the books for years. The point is that the same collection of sounds and letters can have many different meanings. As with multi-meaning grammatical forms, this polysemy is only resolved when we see the word in context. It is understanding the meaning in context that allows us to say which meaning of the word is being used in this particular instance.

What a word means is often defined by its relationship to other words. For example, we explain the meaning of full by saying that it is the opposite of empty; we understand that cheap is the opposite of expensive. Such antonyms reinforce the meaning of each word in the pair, though of course because a word can be polysemous it may have more than one antonym (e.g. a rich person - a poor person, rich food - plain food, etc.).

Words can also have synonyms that mean exactly or nearly the same as each other. We say that bad and evil are synonymous, as are good and decent in certain situations, such as She's a good/decent pianist. Once again, much will depend on the context in which the words appear. Yet in truth it is very difficult to find real synonyms. Costly and expensive might seem on the surface to mean the same, yet they are subtly different: we tend to use the former about larger projects and larger amounts, while expensive has a broader range of use. We would be unlikely to say That pen you've got there looks very costly, but The new building programme is proving very costly sounds perfectly all right.

Another relationship which defines the meaning of words to each other is that of hyponymy, where words like banana, apple, orange, lemon, etc. are all hyponyms of the superordinate fruit. And fruit itself is a hyponym of other items which are members of the food family. We can express this relationship in the following diagram.

Hiponyms and superordinates

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Рис. 4.4. Hiponyms and superordinates

Part of a word's meaning, therefore, concerns its relations with other words, not only in terms of antonymy and synonymy, but also in terms of how it fits into the vocabulary hierarchy.

One final point should be made about word meaning, namely that what a word means is not necessarily the same as what it suggests - or rather that words have different connotations, often depending on the context they occur in. Thus the word chubby has a very positive connotation when it is combined with baby, but it suddenly becomes somewhat negative in tone if it is combined with middle-aged English teacher! And what about a sentence like He's really smart, where smart would seem to have a positive connotation of intelligence yet could be interpreted as suggesting the man is somewhat devious or self-seeking.

Extending word use

Words do not just have different meanings, however. They can also be stretched and twisted to fit different contexts and different uses. We say that someone is in a black mood (very cross) or someone is green (naIve), yet we are not actually describing a colour. In such contexts black and green mean something else.

There are many examples of how the literal meaning of words can be extended. We say, for example, that the price of mangoes went up but went up here cannot mean the same as it does in she went up the stairs. When we say that prices have taken a dramatic tumble, how are we to explain the meanings of dramatic and tumble?

Such metaphorical use of words allows us to move beyond their purely denotational use (where a word only describes a thing, rather than the feelings or ideas it suggests). It helps us extend our range of expression and interpretation, allowing us the opportunity to explain our feelings about things in a way that creates readily available images. Poets use such metaphors all the time, of course. Consider, for example, these lines:

The wind clawed through the shrunken trees

And scratched and bit and roared with rage.

Some metaphors become fixed into phrases which competent speakers recognise at once, even though the meaning of the phrase is not decipherable from any understanding of the individual words. We all know that She kicked the bucket means She died and that He has bitten off more than he can chew means that he has attempted something that is too difficult for him. If someone says I've got him eating out of my hand, we understand the metaphor, but it is not original; it is a common expression, an accepted idiom. The metaphorical and idiomatic use of words and phrases is not always popular, however, as the following example shows. For some years it became commonplace for people to describe someone who had suffered a disappointment as being as sick as a parrot, and this idiomatic expression became so widely used that it began to irritate everybody, except, perhaps, when used ironically. As sick as a parrot had become a cliche, what Crystal calls a 'lexical zombie'. Money doesn't grow on trees, you know qualifies as a cliche, too, so does the phrase to add insult to injury.

However, a cliche is not necessarily strongly metaphorical all the time as the following two lines of dialogue from a recent radio soap opera episode show:

EX-LOVER:I never meant to hurt you.

JILTED LOVER:Oh please, Richard, not that tired old cliche.

Word combinations

Although words can appear as single items which are combined in a sentence (She was asleep), we have seen that they can also occur in two-or-more item groups (She was half asleep all through dinner, but fast asleep the moment coffee was served).

Word combinations (also known as collocations) have become the subject of intense interest in the recent past, in part spurred on by discoveries from language corpora (see above). Collocations are words which co-occur with each other and which language users, through custom and practice, have come to see as normal and acceptable. It is immediately apparent that while some words can live together, others cannot. We can talk about a clenched fist and even clenched teeth, yet we cannot talk about clenched eyebrows.

The way in which words combine collocationally and in larger chunks has led people to talk about lexical phrases. Such phrases are often part of longer memorised strings of speech. We know, for example, what the word ironic means, but we can also say that it is typically used in the phrase It is ironic that ....

Lexical phrases or language chunks are like pre-fabricated building units. Apart from phrasal verbs, collocations and compound words, such as traffic lights, walking stick and workshop (where two words join together to form one vocabulary item), language also chunks itself into functional phrases (by the way, on the other hand, if you see what I mean), idiomatic or fixed expressions (a close shave, an only child, in love) and verbal expressions (can't afford to, not supposed to, don't mind). Michael Lewis, a proponent of the Lexical approach, demonstrated how a 'lexical unit', like I'll, crops up time and time again in what he calls archetypal utterances, such as I'll give you a ring, I'll drop you a line, I'll see what I can do, I'll see you later, etc. (Lewis 1993: Chapter 5).

The chunking of language in this way suggests that talking about vocabulary exclusively in terms of words is not sufficient to account for the different kinds of meaning unit which language users have at their disposal. A phrasal verb (e.g. take off, put up with) is made up of two or more words (if we accept one definition of what a word is), yet it is only one meaning unit. We could argue that wide awake and a close shave are single meaning units, too. Some people refer to such meaning units as lexemes, but whatever we call them, we need to see that words-in-combination have to be perceived as meaning units in their own right, just as single words such as book or table do.

What we are saying is that we use words either in prefabricated chunks or insert them into the templates provided by grammar. As Steven Pinker expresses it, ' ... the mind analyses language as some mixture of memorised chunks and rule-governed assemblies' (1999: 26).

Adapted from The Practice of English Language Teaching, Jeremy Harmer 2007, Longman.

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Вадим Бондарь
Вадим Бондарь
Как найти и выбрать тьютора?
Ирина Суханова
Ирина Суханова
здравствуйте! я прохожу курс учитель англ. языка. я отправила тест №1, как долго его будут проверять.
Павел Плахотник
Павел Плахотник
Украина, Днепропетровск
Анатолий Федоров
Анатолий Федоров
Россия, Москва, Московский государственный университет им. М. В. Ломоносова, 1989